England has just been put into another national lockdown, the third within 12 months and with COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions rocketing it seems like the light at the end of the tunnel for our mental wellbeing is fading. We’re all aware and reminded regularly of the wider impact of inactivity, stagnation and loss of community when it manifests itself in the deterioration of our mental health and wellbeing. It’s harder for many however, particularly anyone suffering right now from mental ill-health, to see a way out.
This blog is an observation piece shaped over 20 years of my time on the mat. In that time I’ve had the pleasure of sharing Jiu Jitsu with thousands of people from all walks of life, backgrounds and cultures. During my own Jiu JItsu journey I’ve changed careers (twice), had children (twice), suffered injuries and had other priorities which reduced my time training, so has everyone else. But what keeps us all coming back?
It’s not the new belt or learning a cool technique, it’s not even the connection with others (although that’s a huge part of what makes BJJ so amazing), it’s the way that Jiu Jitsu balances us against everything life hurls our way and makes us all feel new again. It’s the antidote to stress, a cure for loneliness, the necessary adversity in an otherwise all too comfortable existence and above all else, it’s a break from our everyday lives. Why does BJJ make us feel different from lifting weights or going for a run? Why are the friendships made on the mat often stronger than in any other area of our lives? The answer, I believe at least, is down to two simple things; the bending of time and shared adversity.
So, let me paint a picture, it’ll no doubt make for familiar viewing. The kids have been playing up, your relationship with your partner isn’t going great, your boss is piling on the pressure and you’re just generally feeling down. We all experience and feel one or a combination of these emotions and stressors at some point in our lives, right?
What do you do?
C) Head to the pub?
A short term solution guaranteed to make everything twice as bad the next day…add self loathing and physical ill-health to your growing list of issues!
B) Head out for a walk or a run? Hit the gym?
Good idea, some time alone…tick, exercise….tick, but what happens to most of us when we do anything repetitive? (like putting one foot in front of the other or pushing pieces of steel above our heads over and over). We think! Sure you might escape for a short while but if you’re in the gym you’ll likely check your phone (and see that email from your boss) or if you’re running/walking all of your frustrations, worries and concerns just rattle around your skull as you pound the streets looking for the answer.
C) Continue to accept that you don’t deserve to feel better?
That’s not an answer!
So how is Jiu Jitsu different?
As previously noted, time on the mat does two very important yet different things. Three if you count learning new skills, focusing on you for a couple of hours each week and staying active and healthy….ok that’s 6! You get where I’m coming from.
The first reason that Jiu Jitsu is so good at relieving stress and anxiety is that it creates an experience which insists that the participant focus purely on the activity itself. You see, when someone is trying pretty hard to wrap their arms around your neck and squeeze until you pass out, all of your other worries disappear. You simply don’t have the time or inclination to consider whether or not you can pay that invoice or if your child will sleep through the night. Rolling, the practice of problem solving under pressure, demands that you are in the moment completely and when you’re in that moment, it provides a freedom and release from life few other activities offer.
Often I have left the mat elated, in part at the feeling of pulling off a technique I’ve been working on in recent weeks and in part due to the internal chemical rush following a combative yet safe exchange. As I leave the academy and jump into the car life’s other thoughts slowly start to drift back in but I realise at that moment I’ve not been stressed about anything for the last hour or two. It feels as if I’ve bent time somehow, carved out a couple of precious moments away from it all, escaped completely. And that escape rejuvenates, it makes you a better and more patient person, parent and partner. Do that twice or three times a week and you’ve created a balance to life which might just be enough to balance the suffering. It might just heal it all.
We can’t face life alone, we’re human after all, social creatures who live and thrive in groups. We provide support and love to others and in return if we’re lucky, they do the same for us. My own experience is that the strongest relationships are those in which we have shared some level of adversity or challenge, a falling out say or shared grief. It’s in those moments when we ourselves are at our most vulnerable that we need others to take the strain and when they do we love and respect them all the more for it.
Jiu Jitsu provides the arena for complete strangers to suffer together and to bare their souls in public. Everyone on the mat, by the very fact they are participating in something challenging, shares their emotions, their strengths, weaknesses, values and morals and hangs them out to dry for all to see. We roll and suffer, suffer and roll and then we embrace and thank that stranger for being a part of a very intimate and often humbling moment. We thank them for keeping us safe when they were an inch from our faces, for playing it fair and for sharing the adversity. Where else in life do we do that? The military and the rugby field would be comparable experiences.
It’s these shared Jiu Jitsu experiences and adversities that form the strongest of bonds. It’s why when travelling it’s not uncommon for other Jiu Jitsu practitioners to offer their never-before-seen cauliflower-ear compatriots jobs, places to stay, food and a mat to roll on. It happens too often to be coincidental and it’s because we know instantly what that person stands for and that we’ll share some adversity with them…and crucially they’ll share some with us.
Life is tough. It’s been a whole lot tougher in 2020 and it’ll continue to be for some time. Now more than ever we need a time and a place to escape to and we need strong friendships and to experience the shared bond of overcoming adversity.
It’s the small and regular wins and losses on the mat, shared by friends we can rely upon to support us, that teaches us all resilience and power, shows us how to be humble yet confident and carves out a few precious hours each week for us to forget the rest.
If you are struggling with your mental health, speak to somebody about it and then find your nearest Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academy together and schedule your first class. I promise you won’t regret it. It might save your marriage, your job or even your life. And by being on the mat for someone else you might just save theirs.
Professor Mike Bates is a first-degree Black Belt under Victor Estima. Mike is the proud owner & head instructor at Gracie Barra Roundhay Leeds, UK. A former Royal Marines Commando who served his country in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Northern Ireland. Mike also worked on the operational front line within the MOD, combatting terrorism in the UK and abroad for over 15 years.